The Unpossessed City: A Novel
By Jon Fasman
Penguin Press, hardcover
Jon Fasman's sophomoric novel, The Unpossessed City, proves a strange blend of geographic romance, cultural case study, and international spy thriller. It is in some ways a beautiful and touching book, and in others a stuttering, confused mess, but such is often the case when a talented writer achieves success too quickly with a best-selling debut and runs slightly amok in the follow-up.
The story opens with a chilling Siberian prison sequence, in which a rogue Russian Interior Minister oversees the testing of a biological weapon secret even to the government. It is an effectively eerie opening, though already the early warning signs of disjointed storytelling emerge as time and perspective flit around neurotically.
Hop around the globe to the protagonist, 32-year-old Jim Vilatzer, who still works at his parents' neighborhood restaurant in Washington, D.C., and exists solely to drink, slowly lose brain cells to his television, and gamble, a vice that has caught up with him in the form of two violently inclined bookies who call in their $24,000 debt. With little in the way of a plan, Jim hurriedly arranges a job with a non-profit in Moscow, interviewing gulag survivors, and poof--he's gone.
Once in Moscow, Jim finds a frightening, corrupt, but enchanting world that slowly steals his heart. It doesn't hurt when he meets a gorgeous blonde, who just happens to have a grandfather who survived the gulag. Jim embarks on a trail of survivors whose stories put him at far greater risk than he expected. When he discovers that he has been used as a cog in a weapons development scheme, it's already too late. Both the Russians and the CIA leap to seize Jim as a pawn in their international game of espionage.
As a travelogue and human drama, The Unpossessed City is artful and sincere, offering a rare glimpse into the soul of Moscow: corrupt, generous, wary, compassionate. It is such a rich impression of the city that it can not only be seen, but felt in the vibrancy and desperation of its all-too-human inhabitants.
As a spy thriller, though, the novel suffers. The plot splutters along like a 1984 El Camino, at times drifting and stalling, at others veering at hairpin turns and lurching forward uncomfortably. Fasman introduces characters only to abandon them for 70 pages at a time, and then fling them abruptly into play again. But despite these troubles, his wry, witty style and insightfully human approach highlight a tardy coming-of-age tale of a stranger amid a haunted people, allowing theme and setting to overshadow the sometimes confused plot.